Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Chat with Patricia Reilly Giff

Q. The "Polk Street" stories involve typical classroom situations, but "Zigzag Kids" takes place in an after-school center. Why this setting? 

A. Writing the "Polk Street" series was the happiest of times. I've always wanted to return to that world, and it was handed to me by my daughter, Laura, who with my grandson, taught in an afternoon center. What fun to explore the problems and triumphs of the young in a setting that might be less structured, more chaotic than a classroom.

Q. After-school care is in high demand now and there are a lot of interesting discussions about its impact on kids. Some say after-school programs offer kids who feel disenfranchised at school a way to blossom; others say after-school programs "overschedule" kids. Will some of these ideas be woven into your stories?

A. I do hope they'll blossom… but the path zigzags: Destiny Washington tells her arch-enemy Gina that her greatest-great grandfather was Abraham Washington … Charlie invents flying feet that just don't seem to fly. And what are those specks in the pool? Lizard eggs?

Q. Is it harder or easier to write for developing readers versus middle-grade readers?

A. I'm truly blessed because I love writing, any writing, even store lists have some interest. But as a reading teacher, I fall into writing for the Zigzag age group easily, using short sentences, frequent paragraphs, and early vocabulary.

Q. You've won the Newbery Honor for "Lily's Crossing" and "Pictures of Hollis Woods," but I'm curious, which book (or books) are you proudest of and why?

A. I wouldn't call it pride. How about loving the writing -- and each one for a different reason? "Lily's Crossing" was really my first serious book; "Hollis Woods" was written for my mother with the places and characters that involved her; "Beast in Ms. Rooney's Room" made me laugh; "Nory Ryan's Song" was about my Irish heritage, so---
     Wait a minute. I wrote about ninety books. Am I going to keep going?

Q. I understand that your family makes it into some of your stories. Your husband, I read, was the inspiration for the janitor in the "Polk Street" series. What does your family think of how you portray them?

A. Ah, yes, my husband Jim was the custodian in "Polk Street." I have to remind him about that; he may be slackening off. He was also the (true life) detective father of Emily Arrow. He may be slackening off there, too. The placement of car keys seems to be a mystery.
     I warn the children and grandchildren: you be good to me and I'll be good to you. And if not ---
     Amazing power.

Q. Have you ever appeared as a character in your books?

A. They're all me, the good guys, the bad, the good looking, the old ones with lines. I try to keep out of it, but I keep sneaking in there.

Q. You've said you try to make ordinary people feel special in your books and it seems that you really try to break down prejudices as well. Can you tell me what experiences and/or influences made you so passionate about these themes?

A. I am truly passionate about this. I worked with so many kids who were academically unsuccessful, kids who were angry and unhappy. I always wanted them to find the beauty within themselves, to know that they had value.

Q. What are your favorite characters in children's literature and why? Which authors influenced you as a writer and how?

A. I was probably ten when I read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" for the first time. My roots were in Brooklyn and I thought Francie Nolan belonged to me. She felt about reading exactly as I did; it was magical and she, too, wanted to read every book in the library. We both loved a tree. Mine was a cherry tree. I'd sit under it and read on a Saturday afternoon and think I was the luckiest girl alive.
     And how lucky I am to be able to read Richard Peck's books. I pluck his newest one from our bookstore shelf the minute I see it, make a cup of tea, and stretch out on the couch. I linger over his words, there's a precision that is rare in writing. He describes characters so they walk off the page into my heart; his stories are unforgettable.

Q. What is the greatest compliment you've received from a child or an adult who has read your books?

A. I received a letter from a child who had read one of the Polk Street books. "Do you know me?" she had written. It was a wonderful feeling for me. What I want to do in my stories is to mirror real life that the reader finds something of himself in my characters, something real.

Q. How challenging is it to find fresh ideas that are authentic and fulfilling to a reader?

A. It's not the ideas that are hard -- try fleshing them out into full-length books! And how about getting toward the end and having no idea how to pull the whole thing tougher?

Q. Where do you go for inspiration since leaving teaching? Do kids ever approach you, on the street or by email, about writing about their lives?

A.  Really, it's everywhere, from the kid who called at 11:00 at night because he didn't have time to read my book and the book report was due in the morning, to my grandson who says: "Follow my back, Gram," to the letter sent by a child, sandwiched in with a pile of letters from a class, "I didnt attuly read your book. Don't tell my etcher."

Q. Writers have an awesome opportunity to reach lots of children, and with that comes responsibility as well as opportunities. Do you feel the weight of this when you write and how do you view your role as a writer?

A. My responsibility is to write the best books I possibly can and hope the kids love them.

Q. How do you get yourself ready to write? How do you get into the mind of your characters?

A. Last question -- and easiest: early in the morning, I zip up my robe, make a cup of tea, and with feet up on the couch and the laptop on my knees, talk to my characters a little… Love it all.

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